Nickel and Dimed

I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed today, and I wish I could say it was an eye opener. I’ve worked my share of low wages jobs, and I’ve wondered how somebody with a family could survive on the minimum wage. Ehrenreich answers it simply: you can’t. People live out of their cars, or share dilapidated housing with friends and relatives to survive. She writes simply and effectively, exposing the demeaning ways that companies keep these low wage workers in their thrall. And while she works diligently at her various jobs, Ehrenreich comes across as something of a guerrilla worker. I especially enjoyed her sojourn as ‘shelver’ and union agitator in Wal-Mart, something that desperately needs to be addressed. I was a bit disappointed that she quit so soon, I am certain if she continued mouthing off about unionizing her Wal-Mart her days in the Ladies Department would have been numbered.

I had a discussion with a coworker last week about unions, when I mentioned that I used to work on a loading dock in college and drove a forklift he was surprised. When I mentioned my union membership during that time, he was outright shocked. He was virulently anti-union, and he had nothing good to say about unions and unionized labor. Coming from a white collar accountant, I shouldn’t have been too surprised, but I was. His litany of union evils was the stock generalizations about lazy, non-productive workers shirking their duties to the company’s detriment. Coming from a union family, I couldn’t disagree more. My father’s union job put food on the table, a roof over my head and a warm bed for me to sleep in. The union even helped subsidize my education through a couple scholarships I earned. I see far more to fear in the ‘at will’ policies of Wal-Mart, McDonalds and their ilk. Only a fool would blindly follow union dogma, but I think that can be rightfully said about corporate benevolence. In an ideal capitalist economy, labor would be able to bargain and demand the best compensation from employers. Unfortunately the system is rigged to benefit the emerging global multi-nationals.